Historic Women


Historic Women


A free verse poem that discusses women's moral strength and religious convictions throughout history. The women discussed are significant in history, in arts, and in politics in "Pagan, Christian, Feudal, and Modern times". Notable figures that she discusses are Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Queen Victoria.


Wilde, Lady (Jane Francesca Agnes, née Elgee)


January 1888




Yes, they have lived! these women whose great names
Are graven deep on the world’s history:
Strong, splendid souls that chafed at human wrong,
And tyranny and servile servitude,
And bonds that strangle nations to the death;
So flung their lives down with a passionate waste,
As incense upon altar sacrifice,
For glory, country, love, or some great cause;
For a whole people merged in nationhood.
Or one, more loved than nations or the world.
Annihilating even womanhood,
With all its soft tears and compassionate grace,
When Heaven had need of hero-hands to strike
For vengeance, people's rights, or liberty.
And who dares judge these women, God-possessed,
With deep prophetic eyes, on whom was laid
The mission to avenge? Strength from the Lord
Was given them. Their words had priestess-power,
Their deeds, though red with crimson cruelties,
Had yet the deep significance of justice,
And taught the world by many a dreadful sign
That sin must be struck down with resolute hand,
E'en though it wear a monarch's mighty crown,
Or feast with us at purple festivals,
Or plead for shelter in our very tent.
See Miriam clashing cymbals in the dawn
For bondage broken and a people freed.
While Pharaoh's hosts are drowning at her feet,
Till up through gilded folds of morning clouds,
By desert Temples and by yellow seas,
Loud hymns of freedom echoed back her words,
And the grand rhythm of the march of men!
Thus, 'mid the clustering palms by Ramah's well
Arose great Deborah's tragic song of scorn;
While Jael stood by fallen Sisera,
Fearful to see—the hammer in her hand—
Even as she smote him sleeping in her tent;
The awful inspiration still upon her
Of that fierce deed by which "the land had rest."
So, Judith, gorgeous in her painted tire,
And loveliness that dazed men's eyes to see,
With jewels twined amid her perfumed hair,
Passed like a glorious vision through the gate
Of sad Bethulia to the Assyrian's tent,
And slew him with her beauty ere she took
The glittering falchion from the golden bed
And freed her people by one mighty stroke.
This must at least be granted to the sex,
That Woman is no coward fronting fate.
Sublime in love, in suffering, in death,
She treads all terrors down with calm disdain,
As stars tread out the blackness of the sky,
In silent grandeur. Such the Roman wife
Who drew the dagger from her husband's hand
And stabbed herself, to teach him how to die;
Then, smiling, said, “It is not painful, Paetus;"
Such the proud queen, who would have flung away
A kingdom for her lover, like a pearl,
Yet scorned to wear the Victor's gilded chain,
Or trail her royal robes in Roman streets,
So, from the asp took swift and sudden death.
Self-slain, in all her splendour like a queen,
With Egypt's crown still resting on her brow.
For strength is in the woman's pliant nature
As iron in the bending grasses. These
The softest wind may prostrate to the earth,
Though storms will fail to break. We trace it plain,
Through all her sad, vain, feeble outward life,
Like steadfast threads of gold in gossamer.
And never failed the race in heroines
When God had need of martyrs, or the world
Of ministrants to pour the wine of life
For the pale athletes weary with the toil,
And fainting in the dust of the Arena.
Through Pagan, Christian, Feudal, Modern times
The Woman is the synonym for courage;
From Artemisia to the Orleans maid,
Whose pyre was lighted with her victor palms;
Or her who stabbed the tyrant in his bath
For love of France, then bowed her fair young head
Beneath the guillotine—content to die,
So Marat's yoke was lifted from the land;
Or Roland's wife, who stood amid the storm
Of Slugging passions sweeping down a throne,
Calm as that sculptured goddess, on whose brow
The whirlwind drives the drifting Libyan sands.
We see her yet! Her proud, pale features lit
With glory of such dreams as Plato loved,
Strewing red rose-leaves on the wine-cup drained
That last night with the fated Girondins;
Still true to Freedom, holding it absolved
From all the desecrating crimes of man;
Still to the last invoking Liberty,
E'en on the blood-stained scaffold as she died,
The Martyr-Priestess of the Revolution.
But there are gentler memories of Women.
Let us take up the bead-roll reverently,
As holy hands count rosaries with prayer,
Of those whose influence on glorious minds
Have made their own names glorious evermore,
Shining in splendour on the poet's page
Like bright initial letters on a scroll
Made consecrate by saints; or some fair bordering
Woven of shimmering lights like powdered gems
On dark, discoloured leaves of human life.
Vittoria Colonna's marble brow
Still bears serenely as a Phidian Muse
The laurel-wreath of Michael Angelo;
Petrarca's crown is laid at Laura's feet;
While Leonora by that trembling kiss
On Tasso's lips one gentle summer's day
In the duke's garden, as he read to her
His own great story of Christ's Sepulchre,
Has bound the poet's soul with hers for ever.
And radiant Beatrice with starry eyes
Guiding great Dante up from Hell to Heaven,
Until he reached the glory of the Throne,
And saw the circling saints in their white stoles,
Stands yet within the everlasting light,
Her gaze fixed on the sun, immovable,
As Dante saw her in the Paradiso,
The glorified ideal of the Woman,
And still are with us women who can guide
The souls of men to calm, clear heavenly heights
Where clouds and mist roll down beneath the feet.
Heroic hearts are near, deep spirit-eyes
Gleam on us in the darkness of our lives,
As on the shepherds in the midnight gleamed
The star that lit them to the feet of Christ.
The race can never die. Still on our ears
The clear "Excelsior" from a woman's lips
Rings out across the Apennines, although
The woman's brow lies pale and cold in death
With all the mighty marble dead in Florence.
For while great songs can stir the hearts of men,
Spreading their full vibrations through the world
In ever-widening circles till they reach
The Throne of God, and song becomes a prayer—
And prayer brings down the liberating strength
That kindles nations to heroic deeds—
She lives—the great-souled poetess who saw
From Casa Guidi windows Freedom dawn
On Italy, and gave the glory back
In sunrise hymns for all Humanity!
And homage must we give to her who wears,
With the calm grace of God's anointed Queen,
The diadem of Kingdoms on her brow.
Supreme above all women—Empress-Queen
Of countless millions and of half the globe,
Yet blending with her royal majesty
The soft, sweet music of a woman's life.
Gentle, while all her armies shake the earth,
And seas and oceans bear her lion flag,
Strong, with the sacred reverence for truth,
Steadfast for right, and loyal to her land
Through storm and sunshine, splendour, gloom, and tears;
For no unworthy act has ever marred
The holy consecration to the vow
Her child-lips uttered in that solemn hour
When, crowned with sovereignty, she took her place
Amid the sceptred monarchs of the world.
And others, great as heroines of old,
Still breathe our common air. Do we not see
Imperial, beautiful, and gifted women
Reigning by right divine of womanhood,
By angel-goodness, or by queenly grace,
Claiming instinctive homage from the crowd?
Some Sibyl with her shadowed, mystic eyes,
Seems fresh from commune with Divinity;
Or some sweet Sappho with her passionate lute
Wakes the deep inner music of the heart.
Others recall the glory of the Greek
Who ruled with the Olympian Pericles,
And, with Aspasia's genius-given power,
They gather round them in a zone of light
Poets and sages and philosophers,
Golden-mouthed orators, and all whose souls
Bum with the proud ambition to be great.
And some bear high above the people's heads
The starry oriflamme of nationhood,
Chanting their solemn songs of Faith and Hope,
Till all the masses tremble as the leaves
Of forests when a tropic storm sweeps by,
While from the Pythian passion of their eyes
Flow mighty inspirations, such as fired
The souls of Greeks—made heroes when they gazed
On great Athene of the Paithenon.
But above all creation Woman stands
Sublimely consecrated by His Will
Who chose the maiden-mother of the Christ,
To manifest the full Divinity;
And placed the glorious hieroglyph on high
Of the crowned Woman by the Throne of God,
Clothed with the sun, the moon beneath her feet,
And on her brow a coronal of stars.
Some lesson from the far Infinity
Is shrined within this everlasting sign,
Teaching, perhaps, to all in Earth and Heaven
That far above all might of intellect,
All thrones, dominions, kingdoms, grades, and powers,
Of angels with the trumpets and the seals,
The moral nature symbolised by Woman
Is nearest God’s similitude, and shows
The Soul's divinest excellence of beauty.
And still the true Divine is born of Woman,
Still, as of old, she kisses wounded feet,
Cleansing the earth-stains with her pitying tears.
Still pours sweet spikenard upon weary brows,
Still stands beside the Cross to weep and pray
Through the deep gloom of crucifixion hours,
Still watches by the sepulchre to greet
With tender, trustful, radiant words of love
The uprisen soul that casts its grave-clothes by
And springs to freedom from the bonds of sin.
Priestess and victress! through the world's dark ways,
Up the great altar stairs that lead to Heaven,
The torch of Love in her uplifted hand,
Woman still guides Humanity, and best
Fulfils the woman's mission when she tends
The sacred fires of Glory, Faith, and Truth
In human hearts. True helpmeet for the Man,
When with a holy, pardoning, saintly zeal
She draws the erring nature back to God
With bands of love. Still pleading for the Right
In words that weep and tears that speak like prayers;
The guiding angel of a darkened world
Whose only light can come from Faith and Love.